“How do I go on?” I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?
Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.
In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.
On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”
Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.
I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.
This soul work begins with the ancient Greek dictum, “know thyself”? Or, to put it more rabbinically, “know before whom you stand?” I ask myself: What am I afraid of? Deep down, what are my real hopes?
An investment of time and focus in anticipation of the holidays elevates the experience. Without the prep-work, is there any doubt that 5 hour services could be a drag? It’s like showing up to the Olympic marathon having not stretched, not worked out, and perhaps not having run in an entire year (or more). The results won’t be good.
I base my approach on practices of the Penn Resiliency Project, of Positive Psychology – this soul’s accounting tackles our fears and hopes for the coming year head-on and in a practical way. Here are the steps:
For each of the categories of your life (friends, relationships with each family member, work, personal health, etc.) do the following:
1) List 3 things that you are most afraid will happen in the coming year. (I encourage you to be honest with your fears – just get the realistic and unfounded flow out of you).
2) List 3 things that you deeply hope will happen in the coming year.
3) List 3 things that are most likely to happen this year.
You’ve just put pen to paper about your worries and your hopes as well as what is most realistically going to happen – Reality is most often found in that middle ground between worst and best.
Now, list steps to take:
A) For each of your fears listed, give yourself 3 simple steps to take to prevent the worst from happening.
B) For each of the things you hope will happen this year, give yourself 3 simple steps that would help make that happen.
Having the opportunity to be honest about our hopes and fears, and creating realistic steps about how to prevent or coax them along, has a tremendous empowering effect on our spiritual preparation for the New Year. It leads to greater joy and to greater optimism.
First thing in the morning, I like to take a 3-block walk to the Grind Café and Gallery on Main Street at King Edward Avenue. Once I’m there, I like to sit near the window and watch Main Street before it’s fully woken up. There’s a little patch of sky I can see, right over Locus restaurant, and its color forecasts the day: blue or grey.
If I’m lucky, I get 15 quiet minutes to read and write and reflect and, sometimes, to cry. The Grind is a kind of chapel for me. It’s like a schule, a synagogue, because it’s a neighborhood, and it’s a microcosm, which means, literally, a little universe. And a lot of prayer happens there.
There’s the quiet man who comes every day with two parrots, one on each shoulder; the toddler who shrieks with delight at each passing truck; the Friday Or Shalom Men’s Torah study in the back; and the owners, Michelle and Jay, who make every customer feel welcomed and honored.
There is the older gentleman who used to sit outside with his very shy dog. When I didn’t see either of them for many months, I thought maybe the bad weather kept them home. Finally, one day the man came alone and I asked him, “How is your dog?” Tears exploded from his face, and all he could choke out was, “It was horrible.” And all I could say was, “You must really miss her.” Continue reading
Here is a radical proposal for the New Year, forget the guilt, instead, lean into what you love to become the best possible version of yourself.
The liturgy for the Jewish New Year has us taking a long hard look at all the mistakes we have made over the previous twelve months. Soul searching is good, but for the most part if we are honest we already know where our faults lie and if we were able to change them with ease, we would have already done so.
This is not to say that we should forgo striving to be our best selves. On the Jewish calendar, the month leading up to Rosh Hashana is called Elul in the Jewish calendar. One rabbinic interpretation of this name is that it is an acronym for the Hebrew Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me. A lovely romantic notion, the rabbis also take it to be a tribute to God’s love for us. It is not accidental that the month leading up to the New Year is one that takes love as a main theme. Love can be a powerful force for change, easier to embrace and more satisfying than guilt.
There are many ways to use love as a means of encouraging yourself to its best self. Love exists on many planes, elevating any one of them improves the world. Here are three concrete suggestions that focus on love of self, love in relationships, and love as an element of community.
Make a list of the things you love about yourself. The list should have no less than 5 significant things on it. Take time to think about each of these attributes, why do you love this about yourself? Generosity? Creativity? Silliness? Ambition? Consider how each of these qualities helps you be a positive presence in the world. Think back to a time in your life when those elements of your self were being fully expressed. Are you making the most of these gifts right now? Ask yourself what you might do expand the impact of that strength in the world. If you are struggling to make a list, then ask for help from those around you to do so.
Part of the process of preparing for the New Year is repairing relationships. While I believe that apologies are important, taking time to focus on what works in relationships is important as well. Set aside time with those with whom you are close. Tell them what you love and appreciate about them. Give them examples of how this strength inspires you, or affirms something about the world. The more concrete the better. Knowing they are appreciated and truly seen for who they are will help them start the year in a better place and will strengthen your relationship. If there is repairing to be done, spelling out the love first will set the stage for positive engagement.
What do you love to do? Lean into your talents to make a difference in the community around you. Volunteering can be about need but it can also be about sharing a passion and capacity. Play sports? Then offer to coach little league. Bake? Then bring cookies to firefighters, bread to shut ins. Sing? Take your talent to the local hospital. Sure any of this takes time, but if you volunteer to do what you love you will get a great bang for your buck. The parts of you that you love will have a chance to shine and your passion will inspire others. Studies show those who give feel great. The world will be a better place.
When love takes center stage, we poise ourselves for success. When we feel strong about ourselves we are more capable of hearing the criticism that will undoubtedly come. When we know we are loveable, loved and capable of sharing love then we can work toward making the New Year that Rosh Hashana ushers in, one of light, goodness and change.
The hebrew letters that spell out the name of the Jewish month that we have just entered – Elul – are described in the Talmud as an acronym for the phrase from Song of Songs: ‘Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li‘ – I am my beloved and my beloved in mine. Traditionally this has often been a time that rabbis have expounded on the invitation for us to use this month, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, to rediscover or recommit to a relationship with God. Like two lovers who may have become distanced, we yearn to be in stronger relationship with each other. Thinking about our relationship with God is no easy matter. In previous years as we’ve entered this month, I’ve contemplated the challenges that many of us have with accessing a sense of relationship with God, and suggested ways to begin a conversation.
But this year, my focus for myself, and for my congregation, are the relationships and connections that we make with other people. These may be more concrete that contemplating a relationship with God, but they are certainly no less challenging. And yet, as the scholar Brene Brown articulates so beautifully, “Connection is why we’re here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Think about the kinds of experiences that make you feel good. A good meal out with friends consists of both the food and the company, but the food alone would be unlikely to satisfy us to the extent that the time spent in good company (without the food) could. When you invite people to your home, and the time flies by in conversation and you suddenly realize it is midnight… and you find yourself wondering why it took so long to get together. Relationship-making and connecting with others is at the heart of so much of what sustains us, both for pleasure and in the context of our professional lives.
It can also be a source of pain to us. And part of this is because it requires us to be vulnerable to truly open ourselves up to the possibilities of connecting more deeply with others. Once we’ve created a few ‘safe’ connections, we form cliques and groups, and might insulate ourselves from the vulnerability inherent in continuing to expand our connections.
I believe that the work of a spiritual community is to challenge ourselves to do more. Why? Because the benefits we will reap individually and communally can be enormous. When you can think of 20 people who will be there for you rather than 2, that is a wonderful experience. When you respond to the need of another ‘just because’ they are a part of your community, that comes with its own feel-good. We can feel less selfish, more expansive, more aware, more supported, more energized, and more inspired. We can feel more alive.
And, perhaps, it is in fact in the spiritual practice of connection and relationship-building with each other that we actually experience a spiritual connection too. We discover, in fact, that God was there all along.
This month I will be posting thought-pieces on connecting on my personal blog and our congregation’s Facebook page. We are preparing to make this the focus of our community work over the High Holidays and beyond. We will also be creating opportunities for meaningful connecting within the context of our worship services during the holiday period. My focus is on my congregation, because I believe that we have the opportunity to create a ‘community of practice‘ within the context of a congregation. But opportunities for connection exist in every place and every moment. Think of the connections you’ve made, however fleeting, talking with the woman on the bus, or the family playing on the beach next to you, or while waiting at the photocopier. Not every connection leads to more, but its a great way to start.
In the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, for our pre-Selichot service study and discussion, I presented the animated shorts of Hanan Harchol, found at www.jewishfoodforthought.com Not only are these charming, they are wonderfully thought-provoking, and generated a great deal of conversation. We watched ‘Forgiveness’ first (Click here to watch).
I will speak for myself when I say that, despite my understanding that forgiveness is creating an internal change that allows another person’s acts to no longer keep a grip on my thoughts and emotions – to, as we hear in the animation, no longer let someone ‘live rent free in my head’ – it is an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice. At times, often unexpectedly, I find myself replaying painful scenes from my life when someone’s words hurt me, or I felt wronged, or someone acted in a way that was dismissive or condescending toward me. I have no desire for these scenes to occupy space in my memory banks. But they seem to have an uncanny ability to maintain their grip.
Mindfulness practices can help combat the power of these thoughts. While I may not be able to neutralize them completely, a greater self-awareness can at least enable me to notice when my mind is in that place, and I can then consciously let it go and try to clear the picture in my head. Sometimes that is as good as it gets. I don’t believe that forgiveness is a one-time thing. It is a process that we need to repeat over and over when a particular moment of our past swims back into view, churning up old emotions with it. And then, perhaps, over time, the more we find ourselves able to notice and dismiss the memory and observe rather than be drawn in by the emotions, the more we are able to neutralize the intensity of the memory when it arises the next time.
Why is it so important to forgive? I’ve been thinking a lot during my preparations and sermon-writing for the High Holydays, that our entire orientation to life – our outlook, our motivation to engage in purposeful acts in the world that make a difference to the community we live in, and the ways that we engage with others on a day-to-day basis, are all driven by the things that we marinate our minds in. There are many ways that we can marinate the mind in something that is burning with negativity. Painful memories from the past are some of the ways. And I know that, for me, when those memories arise, I feel myself get tense and my teeth grit, and my brow furrows, and I’m more likely to be sharp with someone or impatient, and I’m more likely to want to shut myself off from interactions and just hibernate in my own, private space.
But when I do those things, how can I make a positive difference in the world? How can I contribute in a meaningful way to the life of my family, friends, or community? How can I be open enough to give and receive love, to act compassionately, to create space for a different kind of interaction next time around?
Forgiveness is the key. When we read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, that is the message. Jonah wants to see strict justice applied to Nineva. When we dredge up past scenes of hurt, isn’t that what we want? We want to know that person got their comeuppance. We want to know that someone gave them as good as they gave. We want to see them fail at something. But what does that achieve? If we recognize that when we feel miserable we are less likely to do good in the world, why would we hope for someone else’s misery? Yes, there are times when acts are committed that require societal justice to be done. But, on an individual level, forgiveness and legal justice are compatible and can co-exist, because one is an internal state of mind, while the other is a social system for maintaining some controls over the worst excesses of human behavior.
Forgiveness is the key.
This piece was originally published at Rabbi Gurevitz’ blog, ‘Raise it Up’ at http://shmakoleinu-hearourvoices.blogspot.com
The New Year of 5773 is upon us. Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) is known by several names including Yom HaZikaron (the Day of Remembrance), Yom Teruah (a day of sounding [the shofar]), and Yom HaDin (the Day of Judgement), and Yoma Arikhta (a single long day).
“A single long day.” An odd description for our new year. Is Rosh Hashanah a one-day holiday? Is it a two-day holiday? Or, as the rabbis suggest, is it simply one, very long day?
To better understand why some Jews observe one day of Rosh Hashanah and other festivals while others observe two days, it helps to have a basic understanding of the Jewish calendar. Of course, the word ‘basic’ ought not to be used with such a complex subject as calendrical issues are some of the most difficult to grasp. Perhaps straightforward is a better choice and a very straightforward explanation of why extra festival days are observed may be found here.
At the start of our holy days, it is custom to recite the Shehecheyanu, the blessing that thanks God for enabling us to reach this season. And since the additional day that is added to the beginning of our festivals might actually be the accurate first day (again, please see here for the straightforward explanation), we say that blessing on the second day as well. However, if Rosh Hashanah is really one long day, does the Shehecheyanu need to be recited on the second night? The answer is yes. Sort-of.
Yes, we say the Shehecheyanu on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. But because the Rabbis regarded the two days as one continuous day, and they didn’t like to waste blessings, the custom arose of either eating a new fruit or wearing new clothing on the second day — both experiences that require the recitation of the Shehecheyanu.
So today, may you enjoy the sweetness of a fruit new to you or new for this season. May you enjoy your new shul clothes. And may this one, very long day be filled with awe as we enter this new year.
On this Rosh Hashanah, we pray for renewal of spirit.
May this New Year refresh our commitment to the values we hold most dear:
May we turn and return to our souls,
May we perceive the Divine light within ourselves,
May we be steadfast in remaining conscious that all people are created in God’s image,
May our days be grounded by prayer and meditation, and nourished by an inner life of gratitude,
May Shabbat rest bring us joy each week, infusing the rhythm of our time with meaning,
May kindness, mercy, justice and love guide our interactions,
May we enjoy and nurture friendship and family and caring community,
May our prayer-life and Shabbat rest provide guidance in our daily choices,
May we find focus and satisfaction and success in our chosen endeavors,
May we vigilant to fulfill our commitments and be faithful to sustaining our sacred community with dedication,
May we be infused with the spirit of generosity toward all those in need,
May our appreciation for the sacredness life fill our days with gratitude, humility, compassion and love.
May this New Year renew our lives for good,
And may it bring us joy and sweetness.
Leshanah Tovah, Happy New Year!